The destruction of the Second World War is something distant and close at once in European imagination. The Nazi occupation left many cities wounded, yet their collaboration often made them scenese of obscene murders, a burden they still carry. Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and Berlin are all cites with such scars, that are especially shocking for someone from ‘the other side’ to see for the first time.

Prague and the resistance movement

Prague is one of the few lucky central European cities that managed to escape total destruction during its occupation by the Nazis in the Second World War. To subjugate Czechoslovakia didn’t require much force; the Germans arrived as victors and were able to avoid any destruction, even leaving the Jewish quarter’s six synagogues untouched as they were to be worked into their future victory. Prague therefore retains its eclectic mix of styles, from ornate Art Nouveau buildings to the towering gothic cathedral in Prague castle. Walking through the city you’d be forgiven for forgetting the Czech Republic’s history as an occupied nation.

prague syn
Photo: Travel via Italy (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0 Prague’s Jubilee Synagogue

Nonetheless, if not in the material domain, the war has left a lasting impression on Prague, and remains embedded in the Czech historical consciousness, seventy years on. The Czech resistance remains a great source of pride for Praguers, who often see their liberation as being of their own creation. To them, it represents the strength of the Czech people in the face of fascism and oppression, and the inalienable self-determination of their country.

When tracing this pronounced memory culture, we cannot find a more poignant place in Prague than the old Jewish quarter in Josefov. There are gold stumble stones on every pavement outside the former homes of victims of the Holocaust, commemorating their names and an approximate date of death; old ghosts and Jewish culture are omnipresent despite the relative gentrification of streets like Pařižská Ulice, which is the most expensive shopping street in the city. It is also worth noting that a certain commodification of Jewish memory is also taking place, putting such subtle marks in the centre of tourists’ attention, turning the former presence of Kafka or the legend of the golem into showbusiness.

Surprisingly, the Nazis left all six synagogues of the Jewish quarter intact when they took control of Prague. The eventual intention was that, following the completion of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, they would become a “museum to an extinct race”. They are now the homes of the Prague’s Jewish Museum, a moving tribute to the people who inhabited the quarter for centuries. Inside the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of Prague’s nearly 80,000 Holocaust victims are painstakingly and beautifully painted on the walls, I walked the halls feeling dizzy and heavy. It’s a haunting experience particularly considering the other museums’ meticulous documentation of centuries of Jewish tradition shaping the city.

Phoenix cities: Warsaw and Budapest

The echoes of war ring through Prague seventy years after its conclusion as they ring through the rest of Europe. Budapest was under siege by the Soviets for 48 days in 1944-45. Following the siege it lay in ruins, with 80% of its buildings destroyed including the Hungarian Parliament Building, the Castle, and all five of the bridges crossing the Danube. The post-war rebuild under Soviet rule was extensive, but residential buildings in styles ranging from art nouveau to Bauhaus were neglected, as their construction was not incentivised. This significantly altered the physical character of the city.

Photo: Espino Family (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0 Tank inside the House of Terror, Busapest

The Nazis planned and largely realised the destruction of Warsaw, razing between 85-90% of buildings. Historic palaces, churches, castles, and streets were destroyed. The demolition was so complete that a detailed 18th century landscape painting of the city, by the artists Marcello Bacciarelli and Bernardo Bellotto, had to be used to reconstruct some areas. While the Old Town was reconstructed meticulously according to its previous structure, despite it having been completely demolished, the Communist authorities failed to restore some significant buildings in the New Town. This again was mostly due to the ideological orientation of the Socialist leadership, for whom a certain nationalistic version of the past could be rendered as suitable prologue for a communist future, but more recent additions were often seen as embodiments of petit bourgeoisie consciousness and capitalist greed.

In both cases, architectural damage is related to human damage. In Budapest, 105,000 civilians died during the siege, many of whom were simply fleeing from fighting or shelling. Following the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, 800,000 citizens (60% of the population) were murdered by the Nazis as they burned Warsaw to the ground, while the rest fled the city. As in Prague, this human damage is commemorated through monuments and museums: places which are especially designed for remembrance and learning.

Budapest’s Holocaust Memorial Centre shows the victims of the Holocaust as real people through not only a wall of names, but also a display of portrait photos. Often those who died can seem faceless and we fail to imagine them complexly, but putting names to faces pushes us to mourn the victims more deeply. It also publicises Holocaust memorial days, such as the Memorial Day of the Victims of the Hungarian Holocaust, coming up on 16 April, when there will be a ceremony and lighting candles at the wall of names.

The Warsaw Uprising Monument depicts members of the resistance running from a representation of a collapsing building, while others descend into a manhole, representing the use of sewers as a means of getting around for insurgents. It is a strong visual image of the human cost of the Nazis’ destruction of the city, and an impressive monument to the lives sacrificed. On the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto, there is now the POLIN Museum on the History of Polish Jews. Like Prague’s Jewish Museums, this is a sad place that chronicles Poland’s 1000 years of rich Jewish history before 90% of Polish Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

Why do we visit these monuments in our droves? I confess that although I am endlessly intersted in this period, I struggle to spend substantial amounts of time in their premises.

Burdened Berlin

But there is truly nowhere the ghosts of the Second World War are more keenly felt than in Berlin, where the war is entirely synonymous with the Holocaust. Germans are still not comfortable expressing patriotism lest they be labelled Nazis and reminded of the dangers of their national pride – though this has improved in recent years, partly due to successes such as the 2014 World Cup. The post-war division of the city stunted the city’s economic growth, and East Berlin is still being built up to the same level of infrastructure as the West.

Photo: Alfonso (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

More importantly, the tragedy of the Holocaust is brought to life by the shame and sadness with which it is viewed by the German people. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, just a few hundred yards from the seat of government, is vast and haunting. Walking through, my stomach is in knots and the people around me are silent. There is really nothing to do but contemplate the evils of prejudice and persecution, to look past the field of concrete slabs to the sky as if to dream of freedom. Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in the suburb of Oranienburg is another horrifying reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink, with its cabins, cells, and gas chamber all intact. Although quite different to visiting a death camp such as Auschwitz, it is a harrowing reminder that atrocities were committed in plain sight of civilians.

Why do we visit these monuments in droves? I confess that although I am endlessly interested in this period, I struggle to spend substantial amounts of time in their premises. It is hard to stay in a place that feels full of death, even when it is not somewhere that death occurred. We cannot comprehend what it was like, and for our sanity’s sake we don’t really want to; but we continue because ultimately we know we must preserve the memory.

To remember tragedy and horror is to ensure that it cannot happen again, and seventy years later one positive thing we can take from the lasting impact of the Second World War on European cities is the fact that people still flock to these places of remembrance and thought. Its all-encompassing destruction is a warning and a lesson to us all; we will not repeat this history. The fact that people still care very deeply about the war and the genocide that accompanied it shows how well learned this lesson is. 

Cover photo: John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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